Transit Train Stuck Atlanta

Passengers are seen during the evening rush hour on a Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority commuter train in Atlanta on Jan. 16. Like South Carolina, most transit spending in Georgia comes from local and federal funding.

The federal Highway Trust Fund is going broke. The trust fund, which is the main source of federal money for highways and public transportation nationwide, has been operating in the red for over a decade now.

That’s a problem for states like South Carolina that depend heavily on federal funding to shore up their transportation budgets — about 42 percent of South Carolina’s Department of Transportation funds come from the federal government — and plan for long-term projects.

According to a report released last month by the Congressional Budget Office, the Highway Trust Fund spent an incredible $115 billion more than it took in between 2008 and 2018.

Congress has periodically patched things up with infusions of cash. But the fund will be completely broke again by 2022 based on CBO projections.

The problem is that the trust fund gets most of its money from the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993. That revenue isn’t worth nearly as much as it once was by simple virtue of inflation, and vehicle fuel efficiency has dramatically improved on average over the past few decades as well.

Raising the federal gas tax by at least a few cents ought to be up for consideration, although that’s not likely a long-term fix. Lawmakers should also push to make sure existing roads are brought up to safe standards before building anything new.

And mass transit funding should be a much higher priority given that so many communities nationwide are years or decades behind in providing alternatives to car dependency.

Right now, only about 1.5 percent of the South Carolina DOT budget goes to anything other than car-focused infrastructure. Nationally, the number is closer to 20 percent, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In other words, South Carolina spends only about $37 million in state funds per year on buses and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, which isn’t nearly enough to keep the state’s existing bus systems running much less invest in something more transformative.

State money accounts for about less than 2 percent of CARTA’s budget, for example, with the rest split mostly between federal and local contributions.

South Carolina, however, is relatively well positioned to handle uncertainty at the federal level. Lawmakers voted to raise the state gas tax by 12 cents per gallon in 2017, which will bring in about $600 million per year in new funding once it’s fully phased in.

The new gas tax money is supposed to pay for repairs and maintenance. That shouldn’t change. But South Carolina could easily afford to put far greater priority on public transportation.

Locally, Charleston County is poised to make its largest ever investments in public transit and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure using revenue from the half-cent sales tax voters approved in 2016. That’s a tremendous opportunity to help change the way people get around the Charleston area.

But sustainable shifts — and improvements beyond Charleston County — will need state and federal help.

South Carolina could double or triple its investment in non-car transportation by shifting a modest amount of money away from new road projects, without unduly hampering the state’s ability to build new highways.

And the federal government ought to shore up its Highway Trust Fund while demanding a stronger focus on mass transit.

Charleston and most other South Carolina communities are largely car-dependent in part because the vast majority of state and federal transportation money goes toward car infrastructure. For safer, more effective transportation options, we’ll have to rearrange our priorities.

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